When jazz pianist and composer Robi Botos agreed to take on the role of 2021 Bravo Niagara! Festival artist in residence, it seems he may have taken the “in residence” part of the title literally.
Botos, along with his wife and three children, recently moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, realizing their family dream to get away from the downtown Toronto core. To Botos, the timing was perfect.
“There’s a time where you are doing things in the middle of the city, when you’re talking about entertainment, I think it’s important to be in a certain place at a certain time,” Botos explains. “But just like all my favourites, who did their time in New York, or LA, Montreal or Vancouver, after awhile, when your kids are about to grow up, it’s not as critical for me to be right in the middle of a city.”
Besides the expense of living in Toronto, the current situation for artists may have made it even more timely for Botos and his family to make the move. “I just feel like there wasn’t too much sense in being in a very busy place, in the middle of a second wave, living in a high-rise,” he says. “And things have changed. Most of the work is remote right now anyway.”
Alexis Spieldenner, executive director and co-founder of Bravo Niagara!, has rolled out the welcome mat for the Botos family. “We’re very excited to welcome Robi to the community, and officially announce that he will be Bravo Niagara! 2021 artist in residence,” she says. “He was one of the first artists we presented for our inaugural 2014 festival at Stratus, with Molly Johnson. We always love having Robi back at Bravo Niagara!”
The renowned musician and his family moved from their native Hungary to Canada more than 20 years ago. It took about six years for them to wade through the red tape to gain landed immigrant status. During that time, he quickly made a name for himself on the Toronto jazz scene, playing with the likes of Dave Young and Terry Clark, both of whom had played with pianist Oscar Peterson, one of Botos’ idols.
In 2004, with his status in Canada finally achieved, he was able to enter the Montreux Jazz Festival’s solo piano competition, placing first. Part of his prize was an invitation to return to Montreux the following year to open for Peterson.
“He came early, and listened to me, and complimented me,” marvels Botos. “Later I got asked to come to his house. They were looking for a piano teacher for his daughter Celine. My first time coming to the house, it was like a comedy, I took about 15 to 20 minutes to knock or ring. I didn’t know what to do.”
When he finally mustered up the courage to make his presence at the door known, Botos was greeted with a warm welcome. “I became friends with the family,” he remembers. “It was just magic, he was beautiful and very supportive. He gave me some beautiful advice, and he was very interested and respectful. He made me feel like I was on the right track. It was a beautiful experience.”
Peterson’s influence informs much of Botos’ work, as does his experience growing up in Hungary in a musical family. “My dad and my brothers listened to a lot of jazz,” he says. “I played a lot of drums and percussion, and keyboards. Without going to any formal school for music I was able to play and make up my own melodies, so I started right out with improvising, and always felt comfortable about it.”
In fact, Botos was a drummer first, and his feel for percussion is a crucial element in his piano technique. “It puts you in your place,” Botos points out. “It’s very important for anyone who touches any instrument that their rhythm evolves and they can get better with timing on their instrument. You can play any notes you want to, but without it, it’s not going to have the same kind of power.” These lessons in rhythm and improvisation are part of what he brings to his position as a member of the Humber College Faculty of Music.
Another major influence for Botos is his Romani heritage. His 2018 album Old Soul features a moving song called Budapest, and he composed the score for Aaron Yeger’s film, A People Uncounted, which focuses on the rich culture and history of the Romani people, commonly referred to as gypsies in Europe. Last year, Bravo Niagara! produced Robi Botos: Romani Experience (available to watch at bravoniagara.org/amplified) as part of its Voices of Freedom Festival: Sounds of Hope program. The 40-minute video is a heartfelt lament for a people who have been marginalized, ostracized and subjected to genocide.
“When you live in a country (Canada) where people don’t really care, aren’t necessarily against your background and your heritage,” confirms Botos, “you can open up and be more creative, and push that side of things. I feel that I owe my ancestors that because they went through the hardest times, including the Holocaust and a lot of persecution. I want to embrace that story and tell it to the world.”
As they settle into their new community, Botos and his family feel incredibly fortunate to be amongst the newest residents of NOTL. “I’ve been coming down here for a while, and I never really thought this would be the place I would be,” he says. “Thankfully, I have nice friends here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This place stole my heart. It’s not just like another small town. It’s a magical place, and I’m excited to be here.”
As 2021 progresses, he’ll be working alongside Alexis Spieldenner and Chris Mori of Bravo Niagara! Festival, making plans for what will be not just an exciting year of music, but also his official welcome, a homecoming of sorts, to his new community.